By Diana Bowley of the Bangor Daily News - DEXTER — In the short time Mark and Judith Stephens have been innkeepers in this Penobscot County town, they have immersed themselves in the American way of life.
Since their arrival in February as the new owners of the historic Brewster Inn, the couple from Cheltenham, England, have joined the local Kiwanis Club, offered their inn to the high school for fundraising events, established a scholarship at the school, and sponsored local Little League teams.
Those contributions to the community by Mark, 41, and Judith, 40, have not gone unnoticed by some residents, who have welcomed them with open arms. In addition, the couple captured the attention of the Maine Tourism Association, which honored them several weeks after their arrival with the Best of the Web Award for their outstanding contributions to tourism on the World Wide Web.
"We want to do our bit to contribute to the economy and community; it’s nice to see that we’re kind of blending in and being accepted," Mark Stephens said during a recent interview.
The Brewster Inn, after all, is steeped in history and should be recognized for that, according to Stephens. Constructed in 1875 for the Brewster family and later occupied by U.S. Sen. and Mrs. Ralph Owen Brewster, the inn is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Ralph Owen Brewster ascended the ranks of government after graduating from Bowdoin College in 1909. He served in the Maine House, was elected to the state Senate, and served as governor. Later, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives and then the U.S. Senate.
The walls of the quaint inn are covered with Brewster-era photographs and memorabilia representing such notables as Harry S. Truman, movie studio chief Louis B. Mayer, and Sen. Robert A. Taft, all of whom stayed at the inn, Truman when he was in the Senate with Brewster. Its rich history was one of the reasons the couple fell in love with the home.
While the inn and the small community have captured the couple’s hearts, their future in Dexter is uncertain because of a rigorous visa process.
The Stephenses are in the country on an E2 Treaty Investor Visa, a document granted to people who wish to invest in the United States. The couple, who purchased the 10-bedroom inn, will have to return to England in two years for a renewal, or they may request a two-year extension, a step that can be done in the U.S. with help from an immigration lawyer at a significant cost.
Either option, however, carries a risk, according to Mark Stephens.
In order to get a renewal, the couple must close down their inn, a requirement of the process, while they return to England. There, they will have to prove they have met the visa requirements, which include making a substantial profit, a process that could keep them in limbo for several more months.
"They’ll expect substantial net annual profits," Stephens said in his thick British accent. "Do I believe our business will meet all of the visa requirements if we go back for a visa renewal? I believe the answer is no because the majority of the profits we make will be put straight back into the business for repairs and maintenance of the property such as exterior painting and interior decoration."
The fact that they had to wait 11 months longer than anticipated for their visa caused them to lose revenue from last summer and fall’s tourist season, he noted. Per regulations, neither he nor his wife can help raise revenue by holding a part-time job outside of the family business.
Steve Royster, spokesman for consular affairs at the State Department in Washington, who spoke in general terms Wednesday, said E2 visa holders must, in fact, show a substantial profit. "It should be substantial enough to show the business is operating successfully," he said in a telephone interview. "The overall goal is they invest in and conduct a business successfully."
Asked if consideration would be given to the fact profits are reinvested in a business, Royster said, "The business should generate more income than just providing a roof over their head. It should be enough to keep the business viable or it should have a significant economic impact."
For an extension, which is favored by the couple at this point, they would have to hire an immigration attorney at an estimated cost of $6,000 for help, according to Stephens. If the extension is denied, Stephens said they would have 90 days to leave the country. Under an extension, one is essentially landlocked, Stephens said. If, for example, he and his wife wanted to return to England for a funeral, wedding or to attend to the illness of a family member, they would not be allowed back into the United States because they’d have no entry visa, he explained.
Royster said the maximum period an E2 visa can be issued is five years for citizens of the United Kingdom. He said the couple could apply for an immigrant visa, which would require a much more detailed process.
The Stephenses’ dilemma is perplexing to their guests and local residents.
"They seem to be operating in good faith, and I only hope the issues of the embassy don’t affect their ability to own and operate a business here that seems to be thriving," Dexter Town Manager Judy Doore said Wednesday.
Dexter resident Rick Bilodeau said he was puzzled by their situation. "I’m just amazed and puzzled by the loopholes they’ve had to go through to get where they are now and then the things they need to do to stay," he said. "With some of the push in our government to provide services and benefits to illegal aliens, it just amazes me these folks are doing things the right way and are having such a hard time."
Stephens said Bilodeau is not the only one who has expressed his disbelief over the hurdles the couple have to jump to remain in the United States.
"I’ll explore anything I can do to help them change their situation," Bilodeau said.
Others, too, have offered their assistance, according to Stephens. People are "shocked and saddened that while we are doing everything the right and legal way to own and operate our business while contributing to the local economy, we could be told by the authorities to sell the business, leave the country and go back to England as early as December 2008," he said. "It would seem if you are an illegal alien, you have a lot more rights and a much greater chance of staying in the United States than if you do it legally and the right and proper way as we have chosen to do."
The Stephenses’ route to Maine was a circuitous one that got its beginning one day as Mark Stephens surfed television channels. By chance, there was a show on about the Daytona 500. Stephens said he was both curious and fascinated by the cars whizzing around an oval track. That program prompted the childless couple to attend the Daytona 500 in 2003 and later to join an online NASCAR forum.
Hooked on the event, Stephens, who was in sales, and his wife, who was in administration, returned to the U.S. again in 2005 to attend two more races. After those two races, the couple took the rest of their month long vacation to tour the country and to meet some of the people from the NASCAR forum.
Maine was one of the 14 states they toured and they found it to be a lot like England, according to Stephens. It was when he was leaving Maine and had crossed the bridge in Kittery that an "overwhelming" sadness came over him, he said. "A funny feeling just enveloped me," Stephens said.
When they returned to their home in England, Stephens said, he and his wife talked about their visit and their love for the United States. That was a turning point for them, Stephens said. They decided to become innkeepers and start a new life in the United States. Surfing the Web for inns for sale, they were swept up with the history of the Brewster Inn and its beauty.
"It was a joint decision," Judy said.
They arranged for a sale, applied for a visa, and put their four-bedroom home in England on the market. Their house sold more quickly than anticipated, so they stored their belongings and rented a one-bedroom apartment until they obtained their visa.
Even though their future residency in the U.S. is far from guaranteed, the couple have no regrets.
"I couldn’t not just do it and sit in England and 20 years from now wonder what might have been," Stephens said.
Until their fate is cemented, the couple intend to make the most of their new community. They plan to host English teas, offer would-be chefs a chance to show their cooking skills with meals offered once a month, and open their inn for weddings and funerals.
"We want to do anything and everything," Stephens said. "We believe in what we’re doing. Dexter feels like home to us and it’s the place we want to be."
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